- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

“How do I love thee? Letmecount the ways,” begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s passionate ode to eternal love.

But today’s young lovers — with apologies to Browning — seem to be more interested in counting the reasons why they can’t walk down the aisle … yet.

Typical explanations include “I’m busy with other things,” “I want to go to graduate school first” and “I’m not sure s/he is my soul mate.” Cohabiting and career-building often come before — and may even replace — marriage.

The trend is national: Since 1950, the average age for first marriage has crept up from 22.8 years to 27.1 for men and from 20.3 to 25.8 for women.

But is “delaying” marriage really a problem? Or is marrying in the late 20s strange only when measured against the 1950s’ “golden age” of marriage, when wedding bells often followed high school graduation.

To the average American, today’s young people are doing it about right.

In a June Gallup poll, Americans chose 25 and 27 as the “best age” for a woman and a man, respectively, to marry. In 1946, 50 percent of Americans thought women should marry by 21 and men by 25, Gallup said.

The age of marriage could keep climbing. There’s evidence that the average marriage age for college-educated women is about 30, said Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History” and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

One reason for the delay is that marriage no longer plays the pivotal role in life it once did, she said.

“Back in the 1950s, [marriage] was the way you began your life” — it meant settling down, getting a promotion, getting a bank loan, Mrs. Coontz said. Today, there are many other ways for young singles to establish themselves as adults, she said. As a result, “people tend to marry when they’ve already proven to themselves that they’ve grown up.”

In addition, she said, “some people will not like this, but you no longer have to remain abstinent until marriage. … People feel less pressure to marry simply because they want to have sex.”

Other evidence also seems to support waiting to marry.

The 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found that half of men who married as teens were divorced or separated within 10 years, compared with 17 percent of men who married at 26 or older.

This kind of data, coupled with studies that find that, on average, college graduates have the happiest marriages, suggests that the best ages to marry are 23 to 27, the National Fatherhood Initiative said in its 2005 marriage study, “With This Ring.”

But not everyone is on board with the idea that young couples shouldn’t marry right out of high school or while they’re in college.

“There’s nothing magical that happens at age 25,” said Mark Gungor, founder of the”Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” seminars.

His advice — speaking as someone who married as a teen more than 30 years ago and is still happy — is: “If you’re going to get serious and fall in love, do it right.”

If young adult couples say they want to get married, parents should support them, even if they’re still in college, said Mr. Gungor, who also is pastor at New Beginnings Church in Stevens Point, Wis. “How can we tell young people that living together and premarital sex lowers their chances for a happy marriage, and then say wait to marry until 28? What do you think you’ve just set up?” he said.

Of course, young people should marry the best person they can, but they should realize that their greatest adversary is selfishness, he said.

“People get divorced for one reason and one reason only: One or both of them get selfish,” he said. “People won’t say they got selfish — they’ll say, ‘Oh, we were too young’ or ‘We rushed into it,’ but it’s all [nonsense]. They’re getting divorced for one reason: One of them is being selfish.”

Marriage is not only beneficial to young people, but also the surest route to the joy of grandparenthood, Mr. Gungor added.

People who wait until late in life to marry and have children “rob themselves of one of the most incredible experiences mankind has enjoyed for millennia,” which is to nurture and love one’s grandchildren, he said. “I’m all for careers, but a career isn’t going to hug you … when you’re 65.”

Historian Allan Carlson also believes that marrying young “is a fine way to start life” and that the current cultural “prejudice” against early marriage is misguided.

The federal government has been waging war on teen pregnancy without noting that that includes married older teens, he said. But eliminating early marriage isn’t good for the culture, given the alternatives, such as unwed childbearing, he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a married 19-year-old having a child.”

Mr. Carlson also is concerned that massive student debt — averaging $18,900 in 2002 — is preventing college graduates in their early 20s from marrying and having children.

If the federal government has an interest in seeing children born into married-couple homes, it would be wise to forgive a portion of federal student debt for each baby born to or adopted by a married couple, he said. Such a policy would show that the nation values marriage and childbearing as well as education, said Mr. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill.

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